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   Chapter 20 ERNEST EXPLORES THE CAVE.

The Young Bank Messenger By Jr. Horatio Alger Characters: 8471

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


James Fox had very little to say during the evening. He was evidently preoccupied and anxious. He paid scant attention to the boys, but left them to their own devices.

Frank knew so little of his father's business, or occupation, that he could conceive of no cause for worriment. When his advances met with little response he asked, "Have you got a headache, papa?"

"No--yes, child. My head troubles me some. Be as quiet as you can."

"Will it disturb you if I play checkers with Ernest, papa?"

"No, I should like to have you amuse your self," answered the outlaw.

He directed the boys to go to bed early. As before, they slept together, and he threw him self on the lounge without taking off his clothes.

Ernest slept well. When he woke up at eight o'clock he saw that Frank was still sleeping, but his host was already up.

Juba came into the room.

"Get up, children," she said. "Breakfast is ready."

"Where is papa?" asked Frank.

"He took breakfast an hour ago, honey."

"What made him get up so early?"

"'Portant business called him away, he said."

"Where's Uncle John?"

"He hasn't been home."

"Has he got 'portant business, too?"

"'Specs he has, honey."

"It doesn't seem nice to take breakfast without papa," said the little boy.

"You may consider me your papa, Frank," observed Ernest.

"But you're not big enough to be a papa."

"At any rate, I am not old enough."

When breakfast was over there was the long day before them to be filled up in some way.

"Don't you ever wish to go out of the cave, Frank?" asked Ernest.

"Where?" asked the little boy.

"Into the bright sunshine, out on the green grass, and under the trees."

"Yes; I think I should like it," answered Frank, thoughtfully. "But papa does not want me to go. I don't know why. Do many little boys live in caves like me?"

"No; I don't think so."

"Can they walk about in the sunshine, and play?"

"I always did."

"Do you like it better than living here?"

"Yes."

"Then what made you come here?"

This was an embarrassing question, and Ernest felt that he must be careful in answering. "Your papa wanted me to make you a visit," he replied after a pause.

"And I am glad you came. It isn't so lonely for me. Before, I had only Juba."

"Wouldn't she play with you?" asked Ernest with a smile.

Frank laughed merrily.

"Juba is too old to play. I hope you will stay with me a good while."

Ernest could not echo this wish, so he answered evasively,

"I can't tell yet how long I shall stay. But the time will come when you will leave the cave and live like other little boys in a house."

"Did papa tell you that?"

"He told me that he should send you to school before long."

"What is a school like?" asked the little boy anxiously.

Few boys of ten would have been obliged to put this question, but Frank had been secluded from the world ever since he was a baby.

"There will be a good many boys, some older, some younger, than yourself. You will study lessons together, and play together."

"I think that will be nice."

"Yes; I am sure you will enjoy it."

"Did you ever go to school?"

"Oh, yes; I went to school for some years. I wish I could go again."

"Perhaps you will go to school with me."

"I can't tell," answered Ernest, vaguely. "Perhaps Juba will go to school with you."

Frank laughed.

"She would look funny going to school," he said.

"What's dat you sayin' 'bout Juba, Massa Ernest?" asked the old woman, entering the room.

"I told Frank you might go to school with him."

"Maybe I'd go and take care of him, honey."

"But you wouldn't want to study."

"I wouldn't study nohow. I's a poor, ignorant nigger. Never shall know nuffin', I expect."

"Don't you think you could learn to read, Juba?"

"No, I couldn't. It takes white folks to read."

"No, Juba; when I went to school there was a colored boy in my class, and he was one of the smartest scholars we had."

"And was he a nigger?" asked Juba, interested.

"We didn't call him that, but he was a colored boy. If he could learn to read, I am sure you could."

"It's no use, chile. I'm too old now."

Much as he liked Frank, it was irksome to Erne

st to remain all day in the cave. It was imprisonment under pleasant circumstances, but still imprisonment.

They got through the forenoon somehow, taking dinner at twelve o'clock.

About two o'clock Frank complained of being sleepy.

"You won't mind if I go to sleep for an hour, Ernest?" he said.

"Oh, no," answered Ernest. "I can read, you know."

Since his exploration of the day before, Ernest had been longing to visit once more the same portion of the cave. But he wanted to go alone. He had a hope that through the aperture in the roof he might effect his escape. It would not do to have Frank with him, as this would interfere with his plan. Now the longed-for opportunity was almost at hand.

He took a volume from the book-shelf, and sitting down beside the bed began to read. But his mind was not on the book, though at another time he would have enjoyed it. He watched Frank, and in less than fifteen minutes had the satisfaction of seeing that he was fast asleep.

Then he left the room, Juba being occupied in the kitchen. He secured his hat, as he would need it in case he effected his escape.

As he passed through that apartment in the cave where there were trunks and boxes, it occurred to him to open one of them. He was rather surprised that it should be unlocked, but so it was.

It was filled with a miscellaneous assortment of articles, but on top, to his surprise and joy, he recognized the envelope containing the bonds that had been taken from him.

If he left the cave he would want these, and therefore he had no hesitation in taking them. He put them in the inside pocket of his vest, and kept on his way.

In a short time he reached the spot lighted by the aperture in the roof.

The opening was quite large enough for him to get through, but the difficulty was that it was fully fifteen feet above the floor of the cave. Ernest was something of a gymnast, but it was out of his power to reach the opening through which alone he could obtain deliverance.

He looked about him to see if there were any articles which he could pile upon one an other so as to attain the aperture. But the cave was quite empty of articles of any description, nor could he find any that he could move in the portions which he had already traversed.

It was certainly very aggravating to be so near freedom, and yet unable to obtain it. There just above him he could see the blue sky and the cheerful sunshine, while he was a prisoner in a dark cavern.

Was there no way of reaching the opening? he asked himself.

If he had to give up hope, he would feel obliged to return the envelope to the box from which he had taken it. Were its loss discovered, he would of course be searched, and kept in stricter seclusion than before.

In the room used by the outlaw as a sitting-room--the apartment he had just left--he might be able to find what he needed. But he could not remove anything without being detected, and should he return there he would possibly find Frank awake, which would spoil all.

It looked as if he would have to give up the chance that had come to him. In thoughtful mood he walked slowly back. All at once an idea struck him. In the room where the trunks and boxes were stored he had seen a long, stout rope. Could he do anything with it?

Looking up at the aperture, he noticed a jagged projection on one side.

"If I could attach the rope to that," he reflected, "I could draw myself up hand over hand till I reached the top, and then it would go hard if I didn't get out."

With new hope in his heart, he retraced his steps rapidly till he reached the store-room.

He knew just where to look for the rope. He examined it carefully, and found it very stout and strong.

He took it back with him. Then making a loop at one end, he stood under the opening and threw it up as he would a lasso. He had to try a dozen times before he contrived to circle the projection with the loop.

Then pulling it taut, he began to climb hand over hand, as he had many a time done in sport. Now his deliverance depended upon it.

Slowly, foot by foot, he approached the opening, not knowing whether, even if he reached it, he would be able to draw himself through the hole.

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